Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Is Work/Life Balance a Con?

Yesterday, Claire Cain Miller was reporting about it in the New York Times. Today I bring you Christine Armstrong, with a long expose in the Times of London.

They are addressing the same topic: work/life balance. Better yet, they are exposing the lie that today’s women have been told. Namely, that they can hold down demanding jobs and bring up children. Too many women, Armstrong tells us, have bought this lie and are suffering for having tried to fit their lives into a template of unrealistic and unrealizable expectations.

The question does not just involve work/life balance. It involves the notion that a woman can have it all, that she can be great at a great job and still be a great mother. All she needs is a non-demanding workplace and a husband who picks up the slack at home. As Armstrong explains, it’s all lies, big little lies. They are damaging women:

The really negative effect of these big little lies is that so many other women conclude that if they can’t make it work, then they are not trying hard enough. Or they are not good enough, or well organised enough.

She concludes that it’s simply not doable:

Because if the only people heard talking about what it takes for women to rise to the top at work are extremely senior, and they feel constrained from telling the truth about the hard bits, then we end up with an airbrushed public story that suggests you simply have to put in the effort. A whole generation is being led to believe that all this is doable, when it patently is not.

Armstrong’s article, adapted from her book The Mother of All Jobs, is richly adorned with anecdotes--truth telling from women who present themselves as being completely in control of every aspect of their lives, but who, in truth, are imploding. The world sees them as superwomen. They present themselves as superwomen. But, they are failing their children.

Here are a few stories:

This mother, like most of us, doesn’t have her sights on a board-level job and is just working to get to the end of the month and pay the bills. She says her children are “the love and light” of her life and yet sometimes she feels they don’t even respond to her because she’s away from them too much and is ready to cry with tiredness when she finally gets back home.

What are their lives really like? What does work/life balance look like, for women who portrayed themselves as happy and fulfilled:

But then a week, a month, six months later, I might run into some of these women and something more complex might emerge. Perhaps she was no longer with “the rock” partner who made it all work. Or her boss was a bully. Or her daughter was anorexic. Or her son was struggling at school. Maybe she’d been signed off work with stress or depression. Or she expressed regret at not being around enough during her children’s early years. Others said they didn’t have time for many friends. Another revealed she was saving for a hayloft in the Hebrides so she could escape her life.

And, also:

Some of these superwomen talked about “flexibility”. It took me a while to realise that what they often meant was the flexibility to leave at the end of their contracted hours — say 5pm — to pick up, feed, bath, read to and settle their kids before working online again later to catch up. One mum-of-three, describing this in practical terms, told me: “I start eating my dinner and catching up on work at 10pm, just as everyone else is going to bed. It’s completely normal for me to finish at 1am or later.” The underlying message seemed to be that modern jobs are fine — as long as you’re willing to work all the waking and non-waking hours of the day.

As it happens, the demands of a serious job have changed. As has most families’ cost of living:

Twenty years ago, the average working day was about seven hours and many mothers didn’t have a job outside the home. In the years since, the working day has grown by an average of about two hours and a million more mums have jobs. This is partly because house prices have quadrupled in that time (a change attributed, ironically, to the rise in women’s incomes). Most households now need to have two parents out of the house working for long periods of the day. But, in that time, the needs of our children and the structure of childcare and the school day haven’t changed at all — as every parent of a school-age child is finding out right now, with more than two weeks of the summer holidays still left to go, their own leave used up, their finances spent and the kids going bananas with the need for our involvement, our undivided attention.

Here’s another slice of real life:

I realised we needed better answers to these questions on a freezing January night when I met a friend in a pub. Between us, we had four children under three and two full-time jobs and, as the wine flowed, we let rip about how hopeless we were. Our lives were shit. She was leaving work by the fire escape in the desperate hope of seeing her kids awake once a day without annoying her colleagues. I was crying before work because I didn’t want to go in. We felt remote from our kids and our partners. We both wondered how we’d screwed up so badly and become such disasters. But then we began to question whether the world of work was set up for both parents to be in it full-time. Maybe there was a different story to tell where, however hard you work, there are very tough choices along the way and just being well organised doesn’t fix it.

And another:

She would describe some manageable challenges and how she was tackling them. But then there were the things they told me but begged me not to write up, like the woman who’d put on a vast amount of weight immediately after giving birth and suffered terrible depression but didn’t want her colleagues to know. Other times, I was asked to tone down a light joke about their partner not doing their fair share of the household jobs, or an admission that sometimes they ended up screaming blue murder at their kids, or maybe to take out one too many references to needing a few glasses (or bottles) of wine to get through the week.

As often happens in such articles, the author blames it on motherhood, on the fact that women are still mothers. One might question their expectations and their sense of reality. Wherever did they get the idea that they could repeal human nature:

We still tend to see mothers as linked to homes, small children and domesticity. Despite the fact that 80% of all mothers now work outside the home — and 25% of those in professional jobs — expectations about maternal roles have not changed. However much we might fight it, being found wanting as a mother, being judged by other parents in this way, really hurts. Especially when your boss, team, competitors, partner and older kids will read what you say. And the wound is even deeper if those critical comments compound your own sense of unease about decisions you have made or are making.

And also:

Another mother I spoke to, a PA to a CEO, had downshifted to working three days a week after kids, but was still drawn back into being online the rest of the time. The stress of trying to serve her boss led her to shout at her kids and lose control of them because she was distracted even when she wasn’t officially at work. This culminated in a trip to the park with her sons where one ran off and hid in a tree and one insisted on doing a poo in the bushes. She chased them home raging and, mortified by her own behaviour, locked herself in the bathroom crying hysterically before realising changes had to be made.


The mum who threw up before her daughter’s birthday party because she works full-time and doesn’t know the other parents, who make her really nervous. The mum who works in a demanding job while her partner is mostly at home, but finds he doesn’t clean up or cook dinner or manage the homework, so when she gets home she often ends up crying at the burden of getting it all done and the injustice of being responsible for everything.

The next time you hear the propaganda about work/life balance, refer back to some of these testimonials and understand that ideologues have been lying to women… to the detriment of women and their children. It's good to see women speaking truth to power.


Sam L. said...

Yep. There's no way one can split the day into equal halves.

Anonymous said...

Women (or, really, people in general) need to act according to natural inclination. Nowadays, many subscribe to some popular ideology. The effort of thinking isn't necessary. Just think, and talk and act, as it prescribes. These people get what they want: the popular, progressive, hip world's approval, from which they derive a veneer of self-esteem. It's a sickness of the age.